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December 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

English: Moses Maimonides, portrait, 19th century.

English: Moses Maimonides, portrait, 19th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, in response to the portion Va’era, I raised some questions relating to God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. This week, I wanted to investigate in greater depth Maimonides’ position on this issue.

In Maimonides’ view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training.  Individuals are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for their pattern of behavior.  Providence punishes (in the form of adverse outcomes) those who turn their attention away from God or cater to the desires of the body, particularly when they do so repeatedly.  These adverse outcomes are the natural consequences of such actions.

Thus, when the Bible speaks of God’s punishment, it refers to the impersonal actions of Providence. In the context of the Exodus narrative, for example, it might seem that God is actively changing Pharaoh’s heart, but the outcome should instead be understood as the natural result of the Pharaoh’s decisions.  As Maimonides explains, “…Pharaoh and his followers disobeyed by choice, without force or compusion.”[1] God does not act in the sense of causing the heart to become resistant to change; rather, the Pharaoh’s repeated refusals reinforced his resolve and led him to become increasingly resistant to Moses’ requests.

Maimonides also acknowledges that there are verses in the Torah that “cause many to stumble and think that the Holy One – blessed be He! – has decreed that man shall do good or evil and that man’s heart is not allowed to do as he wishes.”[2] In truth, however, those passages are reporting on the cumulative effect of the individual’s evil actions: Grave sins and repeated transgressions create a barrier to repentance.

In those cases, the sinner must acknowledge so much wrongdoing and make such great changes in his or her character that the goal becomes nearly unreachable.  As Maimonides explains: “It is possible that a man might commit a grave iniquity or many sins so that the sentence of the Judge of Truth might be that the doer of those wrongs, done intentionally and deliberately, would be denied repentance.”[3]

“Because they continued to sin,” he writes, “repentance was withheld” and they could not break the pattern of behavior. It was not God who caused their difficulties; rather, they were the ones at fault. “Consequently it can be said,” he writes, “that the Lord did not decree Pharaoh to do ill to Israel, or Sihon to sin in his country or the Canaanites to act horribly or the people of Israel to be idolatrous.  All these sins were their own doing and consequently they deserved no opportunity to repent.”[4]  The magnitude and multitude of a person’s sins might prevent repentance; the pattern of behavior may have become too ingrained to renounce.


[1] Maimonides, Chapter 8 of the “Eight Chapters,” in Ethical Writings of Maimonides, p. 90.

[2] Maimondes, The Book of Knowledge, 6:1 p. 124.

[3] Ibid, 6:3, p. 124.

[4] Ibid., 6:3, p. 125.

Va’era

December 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

In Cincinnati, there is a large shopping mall with exactly one lane of traffic into the parking lot and one lane out. It can get really crazy around the Christmas buying season, in fact, and will have a line of a dozen cars waiting to exit. If that were not bad enough, a popular chain restaurant has its entrance right where the traffic backs up, so drivers often have to wait for overly-full diners with doggie bags to make their way across both lanes.

So it happened that once during the holiday season, I was following a suburban as we were attempting to leave the parking lot. It stopped unexpectedly in the lane, right in front of the restaurant – as if there were no line of cars behind him! – and then two able-bodied passengers climbed into the car. Aghast, I honked at him: move it!

What I could not see, however (for he was just outside of my peripheral vision), was the man in a full leg cast up to his hip making his way cautiously across the icy sidewalk to the car. In other words, the suburban actually had a good reason to stop.

The man’s friends and family, absolutely outraged that I would begrudge him his time to be loaded into the car, got out of the car and started yelling at me. One man – I think that he was the driver – kept saying over and over to me, ‘Are you stupid? Are you stupid?’ I tried to mime the idea ‘I’m sorry; I didn’t know’ but that isn’t an easy concept to convey with a gesture. It just seemed to make them madder. So I rolled down the window. He leaned in and said it one more time, this time with emphasis: ‘Are? You? Stu? Pid?’

Um, no, not stupid, actually. Just sorry for having honked at him before I understood the situation.

In the case of Pharaoh, it is not stupidity that causes him to ignore all the signs around him, but rather a refusal to understand. It’s not that he doesn’t see the man in a hip cast, but rather that he simply doesn’t care.

Even so, in responding to Moses, Pharaoh certainly seems remarkably dense. Exactly how many times does Moses have to correctly predict a calamity before Pharaoh believes that Moses has God on his side?

How could Pharaoh be so stubborn? The text, of course, provides its own answer: God intervenes and hardens Pharaoh’s heart. But why does God do that?

We have here a basic problem of free will: if we are to be held responsible for our actions, if we have some kind of ethical responsibility, then we must assume that the actions we take are made on the basis of free will. For it would be merely cruel to punish someone for something outside of his or her control.

But, if we do indeed have free will, then how can it be possible for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart?

Consider the possible implications:

It could mean that God has the ability to intervene and cause someone to fulfill a predetermined destiny. But then we have an ethical difficulty: how do we know when God has made this predetermination, as opposed to knowing when an individual has chosen this path voluntarily? How could we hold everyone responsible if some are indeed responsible but some really are not?

Another possibility is that God does not intervene directly, but that everything ultimately flows from God. For example, the Italian Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto of the early nineteenth century suggested the following understanding: “Know that all acts are ascribed to God, since He is their ultimate cause, some by absolute decree, and others through the operation of human choice granted by Him…In the sense that He is author of all acts, He hardened Pharaoh’s heart…”[1]

In this explanation, it is Pharaoh’s own doing that he has become so stubborn; God is involved only in the sense that God is involved in everything.

But this explanation does not address a critical question: why is Pharaoh being so stupidly stubborn about the Hebrews? Why does he stubbornly endure (or be hardened to endure) ten plagues?

In this regard, I think that Maimonides’ naturalistic explanation makes the most sense: he argues that Pharaoh’s own wickedness has become such an ingrained habit that it is nearly impossible for him to repent and change his ways. It is as if God had hardened his heart, for he is so accustomed to a certain path of behavior.

Aha. There is an important insight there. Sometimes our worst behavior is the force of habit: a reflexive refusal to recognize the pain and suffering of others whenever it is inconvenient to change our ways.

So, to return to my story: honking at someone is hardly a sin, and few would fault me for it. But the incident itself could be used as a metaphor: the people around us might be lumbering on with a difficulty we cannot see. They might be waiting for someone outside our field of view. On a small scale, these small interactions are not noteworthy. But be careful of the habits you create: Don’t go hardening your own heart. Boundless compassion takes effort and practice. And a bit of patience.


[1] As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, p. 151.

 

Shemot — Names

December 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

Exodus 4:28   Moses told Aaron about all the things that YHVH had committed to him and all the signs about which He had instructed him. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. 

It was a surprisingly large crowd. Aaron looked at Moses to see if he wanted to speak first – and then, realizing the nature of his role, stepped forward to address the elders.

“Sons of Israel” – his voice wavered a bit, so he took a deep breath before continuing – “I am Aaron, this is Moses, my brother; the God of our fathers revealed Himself to Moses in a fiery bush at the Mountain of God, in the Horevah area.” He was speaking quickly now, hoping that his voice would not betray his fear. “God has indeed seen your plight and has sent us to bring you out of Egypt.  We will go to Pharaoh – ”

“—Oh yes,” one of the elders interrupted, “and tell Pharaoh that our God wants us to be freed. And Pharaoh will say, ‘who is this God that I should heed him? What is the name of this redeemer-God that you speak of, the God of your fathers?” The elder continued speaking, using a tone that might have conveyed a sense of genuine concern, but also might have been condescension – it was hard to tell. “By any chance did this god tell you his name?” he asked, waiting for an answer, with eyebrows raised. The crowd tittered in nervous anticipation.

“Yes,” said another, picking up on the nature of his question, “did he tell you his name?” – the elder leaned forward to make his point – “was it the God of our Fathers who spoke to you – or was it a demon who has in fact deceived you?”

Aaron’s heart skipped a beat. Moses had been so sure of himself that Aaron had not stopped to think that it could have been a demon who sent them. The metallic taste of fear rose in his throat. Was it really God who spoke to Moses? Was it really God who noted our suffering? Does God even exist? And how could we possibly know?

Standing next to him, Moses spoke quietly with his eyes closed: “I am and will continue to exist as I have always existed. Thus shall you say to the Israelites, I exist sent me to you.”

And at once Aaron understood. “He said,” Aaron announced, his voice grander now, “‘YHVH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me to you; this is my name always and this is my memorial from generation to generation.’”

Exodus 4:30 And Aaron repeated all the words that YHVH had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people, 31 and the people were convinced.  When they heard that YHVH had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage.

More than a story about God

December 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Whenever there is a catastrophe, there is always someone who will want to step forward to assert that ‘this was God’s will.’ I would wish, sometimes, that my fellow-clergy were less confident of interpreting God’s will as a sound-bite for the media.

It is entirely too easy to step into the breach and declare that we had not been faithful enough, that we had somehow done something wrong, that we are at fault.

The advantage of this approach, of course, is that it takes things that were chaotic, difficult, and scary, and tames them into something we can control. If we observe the commandments, then all will go well. This is the theology of Deuteronomy; this is the theology of those who would declare with confidence that God would punish us because God does not like how we vote.

It is easy to dismiss theology – and to dismiss God – on this basis. You know, leave God to the loonies and the wild-eyed among us.

And there is also the position, much less confident, that God is missing-in-action. Did we not have a covenant of protection with this Being, a statement of belief that tragedy would not happen to us, that the forces of chaos, the dangers of the wilderness, the demons of destruction, would all stay clear of us if we were to ‘observe these commandments that I enjoin you on this day.’

We had a deal. And yet it was not observed. Perhaps God is not all-powerful after all.

In that case, God plays the role of symbolic placeholder in our prayers. A placeholder the same sense that a ‘zero’ is a placeholder: it holds the space open but is not filled with real content.

Why should we care about theology?

What difference, really, does it make if we were to think of God as a bearded gentleman or as an invisible force? Why should it matter whether someone thinks this event or that event is the will of God? Why should we care about theology, especially at a time like this?

Theology defines what is possible in our lives.

To give an example, one rooted in simple logic: If you believe in miracles, then miracles can happen in your life. And if you do not, then they do not.

This is not a form of magical thinking. Rather, your decision as to whether or not miracles are possible defines whether or not events will qualify or not qualify as miracles in your life.

So, the question becomes: what kind of life do you want to live?

In our portion last week, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He was falsely accused and imprisoned. His early life was a series of tribulations, most of which arise on account of jealousy and ill feelings regarding his capabilities and his virtues. Some of it was his own doing: by all accounts, he was one seriously annoying kid. But his brothers’ reaction was well out of proportion to the reality.

But he is not one to despair. A natural leader, he is able to rise up to a high position though his wits and foresight. When his brothers arrive in Egypt, he is second only to Pharaoh.

He could have them killed, of course, or imprisoned. Instead, he decides to test them, to determine whether they have any regret for their earlier actions. After a couple of ruses, he is satisfied that they would not leave his youngest brother behind, and he reveals himself to them, weeping:

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’ And when they came forward, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.’”

So, when Joseph says, ‘God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth,’ I always wonder, how does he know? This is Torah, of course, so of course he knows. But if he were your brother or neighbor, would you not wonder: how does he know?

Perhaps he cannot prove it one way or another, but his optimism seems to be a useful choice.

But there’s still a problem here: we are still left with that canard, ‘it was God’s will.’ If we accept that the good things that happen are God’s will, do we not have to accept the bad as well? Otherwise, we start creating a dualism in God: this part is the ‘good’ god and this part is the ‘bad’ god.

So let’s return to the Joseph story: as it happens, his understanding of God changes as he grows older, and his theology improves.

In next week’s portion, we see Joseph and his brothers many years later. And we see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust. After their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. He is, after all, still that powerful. And did he not test them before they reunited? They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.

And what is Joseph’s reaction?

He tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.

And on this basis, he forgives them.

This is a more nuanced theology than what we saw earlier. Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.

Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive. Even in the darkest depths it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

So, ask yourself: what kind of world do you want to live in, one in which these things do happen, or one in which they do not? Ask yourself: do we know the reasons why such things occur? Ask yourself: is there something we can do about it?

I will leave it to you to decide whether more or less guns are needed, whether better access to mental health care is needed, whether first-person games like ‘Call of Duty’ create obsessive fantasies or not. Those are social and political questions; they have entered our national debate, as well they should.

Rather, I am here to talk about theology.

Theology is more than a story about God; rather, it is an explanation of our expectations. Should these things happen or not?

Theology defines what is possible in your life: the experience of miracles or of no miracles. A landscape illuminated with the divine or a landscape that is not. A life lived within the context of God’s presence or a life without.

A world where these things happen, or a world in which we have the obligation to see to it that they do not.

What we do not need at this juncture is bad theology.

We do not need a theology that leaves us wounded with no structure with which to rebuild. We do not need a theology that says it is okay that others should have to suffer. We do not need a theology that blames it all on God and lets us off the hook.

Rather, if we respond by making it a world where these things do not happen, then we might be able to say: what he had intended for evil was transformed by God into good, because we acted on God’s behalf.

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

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